Yesterday we took a look at the NFC. Today it’s time to break down the AFC – winners of 7 out of the last 10 Super Bowls and 4 of the last 5. Can the AFC do it again this year? Will the Colts finally get over the hump? What team will come out of nowhere and make the playoffs? Are the Patriots back in championship form? Why does CBS’s pregame show suck so much compared to the Fox broadcast? Here we go with the AFC division previews.
As great as the Patriots organization is, every team suffers a setback sooner or later. In today’s NFL with free agency… blah blah blah. You’ve heard it all before and every year the Patriots defy that wisdom. But it’s finally going to catch up with New England this year. I know the smart money is to never count out Tom Brady and Bill Belichick but the problem this year isn’t with the offense. (Although I wonder if Corey Dillon will make it through the year intact.) The Patriots defense is their achilles heel. They are thin at linebacker and cornerback. With Tedy Bruschi out with a “wrist injury” (I love how Bill Belichick runs his injury reports like an NHL coach.) and a bunch of nobodies at the cornerback position, can you really see this team going punch for punch against Cincinnati or Indy? The Patriots offense will carry them to 11 wins but they finally cede the division crown to…
The Miami Dolphins. Holy crap, I can’t believe that I just picked a team lead by Daunte Culpepper to dethrone the Patriots. But those 6 wins in a row at the end of last season was no fluke. And that was with guys named Rosenfels and Frerotte manning the helmn. Daunte Culpepper might be the second most overrated QB in the league (behind Vick) but he’s better than Rosenfels and Frerotte by a mile. The only problem that I can see with that six game winning streak was that it came at the hands of inferior opponents. Still, with Ronnie Brown going into this second year and an NFL quality QB, the Dolphins have enough offensive firepower (Randy McMichael and Chris Chambers should have monster years) to go along with a defense that will return to form after an off season in 2005. The Dolphins have the same problem at CB and LB (the backup to Zack Thomas is.. Mike Labinjo?) that the Patriots do but their easier schedule should give them a slight edge in the standings by the end of the season.
Fantasy owners avoided Willis McGahee like the plague this year because last year, opposing defenses figured out that if you stacked the line and keyed in on McGahee, there was no way that JP Losman was going to beat you. JP Losman stinks. In Baltimore he was known as Kyle Boller. But this year, the word out of Buffalo is that they’re working on more short dump passes to McGahee coming out of the backfield. This should keep Losman on his feet and defenses on their heels. If the screen passing game works and McGahee isn’t run into the ground with all the touches, the Bills could really be good this year. I’m pegging them at 9-7 but if Losman doesn’t throw any games away, they could contend for a wildcard spot. My pick of a potential dark horse in the Bills is because the return of Takeo Spikes will drastically improve the 29th ranked defense from last year. Bills fans need to pray that the defense comes up with at least 40 turnovers this season and set the Bills anemic offense up with great field position.
In the cellar we have the J-E-T-S suck suck suck. Herm Edwards might be the shrewdest coach in the NFL. He somehow parlayed a 4-12 performance into a job with a much better team. You know something is wrong with your team when your main RB is a castoff from the San Francisco 49ers and your starting QB has a rubber arm. It’s going to be a long season for Eric Mangini and Jets fans and all they’re going to have to show for it is a 5-11 record. Expect a lot of 120 yard passing days from Chad Pennington and when the Jets do pull a few games out, it’s going to have to be the defense that sets them up. All in all, the only bright side of being a Jets fan is that they’re not as bad as the Texans or Titans.
The best division race from last year will also be very interesting this year. With all the questions surrounding Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer, you’d think one of the other teams would step up but no chance. Palmer has looked phenomenal in the preseason and the Steelers defense is as formidable as ever.
First let’s start with the Cincinnati Bengals. When Carson Palmer went down with that knee injury, everyone speculated he would miss as much as half the 2006 regular season. But Carson Palmer is back and looking like he never got hurt. The Bengals still boast an offense that is every bit as good as the Indianopolis Colts with the exception of their TE. The Cincinnati defense gave up almost 22 points a game last year but nobody was concerned about that because they could outgun their opponents. This year, the addition of Sam Adams should help them with their run defense which was ranked 19th in the league. Forcing opposing offenses to respect their run defense will play right into the hands of their secondary which had a league high 31 INTs last year. If Deltha O’Neal and Tory James can take some of those to the house, it’s going to be a fun year for fantasy owners of the Bengals D. Either way, it’s going to be a fun year for Bengals fans with #85 in the house and another division title.
I realize it seems that nobody is giving Pittsburgh the respect that they deserve but it’s going to be hard for them to replicate the magical run they went on at the end of last year. Perhaps they can find some RB from Miami who is going to retire after this season. (Did you know Jerome Bettis was from Detroit?) Anyway, the Steelers are every bit as good as last year (they return 19 starters like the Seahawks) but every bit as good isn’t going to be good enough in the AFC. In the offseason, you didn’t hear of any big free agent signings by the Steelers, only about the people they lost (Randle El, Chris Hope, Kimo Von Oelhoffen). With everyone gunning for the champs, it’s going to be a much tougher year physically and mentally on them. With Ben Roethlisberger out for a couple of weeks in the beginning of the season, the team hopes Charlie Batch can hold down the fort until Ben gets back on his feet. Those two games in the beginning of the season could cost them the division crown.
McNair looked pretty sharp in the preseason, especially when hooking up with his old buddy Derrick Mason, but he’s one solid hit away from being a “game time decision”, his specialty in Tennesee. When he goes down, the Ravens will again turn to Kyle Boller. Must I really keep kicking Kyle Boller? The addition of Mike Anderson is a good pickup in case Jamal Lewis can’t return to form. But everywhere else, the Ravens are severely lacking in depth. And with Samari Rolle, Chris McAllister and Ed Reed either hitting 30 or coming off an injury, how happy are Ravens fans about seeing Corey Ivy, Gerome Sapp or Evan Oglesby. Oh and Ray Lewis is no spring chicken either. He’s been in the league for 11 years now. The defense will still win them a couple of games but the Ravens have to figure out who their QB of the future is.
Do I really even have to waste time talking about the Cleveland Browns? They had a great signing in the offseason with LeCharles.. oh wait, nevermind. And they still have Charlie Frye at QB. The Browns might be going in the right direction under Romeo Crennell (Kamerion Wimbley comes to mind — he doesn’t seem the type to practice motorcycle stunts) but in a division where they have to play Cinci and Pittsburgh twice — that’s 4 losses right there — wins are going to be hard to come by. So while the ship is headed the right way, they take a step back this year and go 3-13. Ok.. maybe 4-12.
At the end of last year, I thought that Denver was one big talent WR away from reaching the Super Bowl and I expected them to make a run for TO but they went to Javon Walker instead. And while Javon Walker doesn’t have the physical skills of TO, he’s enough to make this into a very very good team. Good enough to get the #1 seed in the conference. On offense the Broncos lost a RB… gained a RB… will probably lose that RB next year … but it doesn’t matter, they will still lead the AFC in rushing. With no significant losses in personnel, the Broncos D will be as good as last year, giving up only 16.1 ppg. The only hurdle in the way of the Broncos and another trip to the AFC title game is the tough schedule. Looking outside of their division, other than two easy games against San Francisco and Cleveland, they have to play 5 playoff teams from last year. Lucky for them they get some respite and play the dreadful Raiders twice.
People don’t talk a lot about offensive linemen until someone like Willie Roaf retires. Then everyone is worried about the effect it will have on Larry Johnson’s fantasy stats and the overall offense of the Kansas City Chiefs. Let’s say that the high powered offense of the Chiefs doesn’t fall off from last year (a BIG assumption). Now the key to the Chiefs season is their defense. Herm Edwards is first and foremost a defensive guy and he’ll do a great job eventually but it’s hard to make significant improvements right away to last year’s 25th ranked defense even with the addition of first round draft pick Tamba Hali. Remember, in 2001 with the Jets, that defense actually took a step back in Herm’s first season. The offense will carry them to a 10-6 record, same as last year and still not good enough for a wild card berth.
Remember last year when the Chargers were the best team in lots of games but somehow failed to pull out the victory. Well, that won’t happen this year. Mainly because the Chargers won’t be the best team on the field. I think the Chargers will take a huge step back under the leadership of Philip Rivers. As talented as Rivers might be, this is going to be his first signficant stretch of playing time out there. I expect defenses to key in on LT the way they did with Willis McGahee and dare Rivers to beat them with his arm. He isn’t ready to do that just yet. In the long run, the Chargers might have made the right decision by choosing Rivers over Brees but for this year, they’ll certainly regret it. They’ll take solace in beating up the Raiders but they’ll regress to 5-11.
Finally the Raiders. The franchise that sends Charley Casserly a gift basket every day for taking Mario Williams because after Casserly’s move, the Raiders were only the second most clueless organization in the NFL. With all the buzz surrounding their head coaching search (names like Whisenhunt being tossed around) they settled for Art Shell who then hired some guy working at a bed and breakfast to be their offensive coordinator. Hey Raider Nation, that sounds like a recipe for a turnaround! The only player we feel sorry for is Randy Moss who will waste away his talent suiting up for a team lead by Aaron Brooks. If you told me Aaron Brooks was going to lead my franchise, I’d consider giving Jeff George a call… The only bright spot about being a Raiders fan this year is that you won’t have to watch their home games on television.
This should be another cakewalk to the division title for the Indianapolis Colts. They lost Edge to free agency but while Denver gets a lot of credit for plugging RBs into their system, remember when Edge went down and James Mungro filled in for him? The Colts offense was just as good. While I’m in no way saying James Mungro is as good as Edgerrin James, the Colts offense is a fine tuned machine that will work just fine as long as Peyton Manning is the QB. That is, until they run into a defense like Pittsburgh or New England who have the blueprint on throwing Manning off his game. The Colts didn’t do much to improve their defense but the drafting of Addai fills the hole left by Edge and the signing of Adam Vinatieri was a great move. Having Vinatieri as your kicker is like having a top goalie in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The team plays so much better knowing that he’s going to come through in the clutch unlike Mike Vanderjagt who is now Dallas’ problem.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will take a step back this year. Their 12-4 record last year came against out of division opponents like Cleveland, San Francisco, St Louis and the New York Jets. This year they have Dallas, Philly, NY Giants, Miami and Kansas City. Their offseason moves strengthened a very good defense but what help did they get Byron Leftwich on offense? Fred Taylor isn’t know as Fragile Fred for nothing and they’ve already lost Greg Jones for the season. Matt Jones should be a very good receiver this year but if that O-line can’t protect a very immobile Byron Leftwich, he’ll never get him the ball downfield.
Finally, we’ll just lump Tennessee and Houston together, two teams that will be fighting it out for draft positioning. I have Houston doing slightly better than the Texans so there won’t be a repeat of this year’s draft day fiasco. The Texans seem stuck in permanent building mode while this is clearly a rebuilding year for the Texans as they try to transition Vince Young and LenDale White into NFL players for their future. There’s nothing to see here folks, just keep it moving along.
5. New England
That’s it for the AFC. Disagree? Post your comments below. Or send hate mail to [email protected].